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Do Big Law Firms Have Too Many Committees?

Aug. 24, 2016, 9:36 PM

We want to open this one up for discussion — Big Law committees: cumbersome bureaucracy or important consensus builders? Should law firms add more, or pull back?

The answers depend on which firm you work for, your role and personal experience. But love ‘em or hate ‘em, practically every firm has one as they’ve been adopted as necessary governance bodies in the management of law firm business.

The question was raised today when one managing partner — Joseph Morford, the managing partner of 210-lawyer Tucker Ellis — came out swinging hard against the use of committees, saying that they can be corrosive to culture.

“We don’t have committees that meet and meet and talk and talk and nothing gets done and nobody is accountable,” said Morford.

“I think what most people would tell you is that all these committees don’t make for better decisions. They do make for people feeling like they have to hold onto some committee role, or else there is something wrong with them.”

Harsh words from the anti-committee camp over at Tucker Ellis. Of course, it’s easier for Morford to say since Tucker Ellis is much smaller in lawyer-count than a ginormous law firm like DLA Piper, Baker & McKenzie or Dentons, which staff lawyers all over the world.

At Tucker Ellis, Morford said the firm has a diversity committee, a partner admissions committee and a nominating committee that reviews Morford’s performance and evaluates how he can improve his leadership. The size of the committees range from five to nine lawyers a piece. The firm does not have a management committee, executive committee, compensation committee or a facilities committee, he said.

“It just wastes talented people’s time,” said Morford.

Do others in Big Law feel the same way? Or was this just one rogue lawyer taking a pot-shot at a time-honored tradition? Brad Hildebrandt, a law firm consultant with Hidebrandt Consulting, said that the history of committees at law firms go way back — as far as he can remember — and were certainly around in the 70’s.

Interestingly, Hildebrandt, who has advised on some of the largest law firm combinations in the industry, said that he generally thinks, “the fewer committees the better.”

“I think this is a trend as firms need their lawyers working on client projects or in business getting,” he wrote via email.

He continued:

“There are a few committees that do make sense, for example an Executive/ Management committee and possibly a diversity committee. Committees that are alarmist, always ineffective and generally a waste of time are marketing/business development/ Finance, and technology, especially when there is talented professional management in place.”

Okay, so Hildebrandt thinks there’s a “trend” here. What do law firm leaders at AmLaw 100 firms say?

750-lawyer Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton has six committees, but its chair Guy Halgren will be the first to tell you that that’s nothing compared to his Big Law peers. Put him in the anti-committee camp: Anti-committee 3 - committee 0.

“We don’t believe in committees unless absolutely necessary,” said Halgren. “They take time and, more importantly, they create a buffer between leadership of the firm and the attorneys. We like to have direct interaction rather than through a committee structure.”

That’s one thing to say, but how does the firm govern itself? Halgren provided the firm’s committees: Its executive committee and compensation committee both staff 11 members; its diversity committee has 15 people; its technology committee stands strong with nine members; and its associate ‘forum’ — a de facto committee — has about one or two associate representatives from each of the firm’s 15 offices.

Three months ago, the firm launched a new eight-person committee focused on women’s advancement to address a problem: the firm’s partnership — like many others in Big Law — only is comprised of about 18 percent women.

Even with all the committees, Halgren considers the firm’s governance structure as having “a minimum.” One thing that Halgren said he can’t stand is the idea of a ‘policy committee.’ Don’t even get him started on this one.

“We don’t have one because I really don’t want one,” said Halgren. “It’s a feel-good committee, where partners debate issues but don’t have any real decision-making authority.”

He continued:

“From time to time it’s been suggested that we have one, and in each case we’ve rejected that. I’ve talked to a lot of managing partners and chairmen from other firms and they absolutely dread those committees. They complain that the committee takes a lot of their time... and they wonder why they have them.”

But the Los Angeles-based Sheppard Mullin is a firm of 750, and it grosses $560 million in revenue, with $1.45 million in profits per partner. What about a firm that has... oh, say... more than $1 billion in revenue and thousands of lawyers?

Elliott Portnoy, CEO of Dentons, issued a statement that is notably in favor of committees.

“Dentons has established an array of committees that have a material impact on our integration, governance, innovation and client service initiatives. Rather than a burden to decision-making, we regard these committees — which facilitate the input of diverse perspectives to influence outcomes — to be core to our success and a best practice for a global law firm.”

We asked for the deets — specific number of committees, how many people sit on them and the like — and Lisa Sachdev, a spokeswoman, said that the firm has “dozens of global and regional committees, with hundreds of colleagues who serve on them.” Sounds like it’s too many to count! It’s important to note, though, that Portnoy isn’t alone in the pro-committee camp. If this is a 3-1 ballgame, it’s about to get a bit more even.

Mark one more for Team Pro-Committee with the entrance of Noah Heller, the CEO of Katten Muchin Rosenman, a firm with more than 600 lawyers in the U.S., London and Shanghai.

In fact, the issue was so important to Heller that he interrupted his vacation in Aruba to hop on a call with Big Law Business.

“If I wasn’t able to be involved in a committee, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in today,” said Heller, who noted that committees were sources of opportunity for young lawyers.

“We look at committee membership as a way to figure out what skills other people have and how to apply those skills to better law firm management, which leads to increased engagement in the partnership.”

Let us know what you think about this thorny committee issue. Have an experience to share, or opinion one way or the other? Write to us at BigLawBusiness@bna.com.

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